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Toppling The Duopoly

Who Will Lead The New Party Movement?

Americans want options. They don't want to have to pick just between Coke and Pepsi. They don’t just want to have to pick between McDonald’s and Burger King. And, in higher numbers than at any other point in modern history, they want more than just Republicans and Democrats.

Gallup recently found that nearly two-thirds of Americans (62%) believe the Republican and Democratic Parties are doing such a poor job that a third party is needed, while 33% of voters believe the two major parties are doing an adequate job representing the public. Gallup isn’t the only polling agency either that has shown a broad appetite for a third option in US politics.

It is important to note that the 62% of US voters in Gallup’s poll cannot be confined into a single monolith. This is a group that spans the political spectrum, and includes voters registered or who have long identified with the two major parties. Why Americans think we need a third option and what they are looking for in a new option may differ greatly.

The fundamental thing that unites these voters, though, is a mutual dissatisfaction with the current system -- a system that offers only two viable options and zero competition. which results in zero accountability.

Will New Parties Emerge from Within the Major Parties?

It isn’t often that the emergence of a third party is given much consideration in a mainstream conversation that is dominated by “Team Red” vs “Team Blue.” The parties and their allies in the media have long controlled the narrative, which has left no room for diverse ideas and opinions.

However, there has of late been rampant speculation that former President Donald Trump might try to form his own party as he clashes with other prominent GOP figures in the wake of the 2020 election and votes on impeachment. Trump acknowledged this speculation at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), but said he has no intention of starting a new party. 

“I’m going to continue to fight right by your side. We’re not starting new parties,” he said. “We have the Republican Party. It’s going to be strong and united like never before.”

This is not, however, the first time that Trump’s populist appeal has spurred this type of speculation. The conversation either focuses on the GOP not being Trump enough or the GOP becoming too Trump and leaving no room for moderate or center-right Republicans.

There are, however, cracks in both major parties that have become more pronounced in recent years. On the Democratic side, it is a populist progressive wing of AOC and Bernie Sanders types versus the old guard and more moderate Democrats. 

“The two major parties operate on an ideological axis,” said former US Representative David Jolly, who now serves as the executive chair for the Serve America Movement (SAM Party). “We see the contrast between the two [parties], but even within the parties.”

Jolly added that the root of their problem isn’t and shouldn’t be the ideological disputes. It shouldn’t be the differences in political philosophy between AOC and more moderate Democrats like Abigail Spanberger, for instance.

“Spanberger was elevated by a constituency that wanted a moderate ideology, and AOC by a constituency that wanted a progressive ideology. Ideology is not the root of the problem,” he said.

“The root of their problem is that there is a party structure that cannot accommodate diverse ideologies. It won’t allow for it.”

When Jolly entered Congress in 2014 he served Florida’s 13th Congressional District as a Republican. However, he dropped his party affiliation because he didn’t like the direction the party was headed and realized there was increasingly less room for more right-of-center Republicans like him.

The further the parties move to the ideological extremes, the less room there is for people with diverse opinions.

There was a time in US history where intra-party fissures might have resulted in a complete break off and formation of a new party. In fact, that is essentially how the country got its first “third parties” in the early years of the Republic. 

Today, however, things are different. 

Breaking off from one of the major parties would mean severing access to critical party resources, including funds and voter data. It would mean leaving a large and deep-rooted support infrastructure. 

But, most important to note is that breaking off from the major parties would mean traversing an electoral system that was explicitly designed to serve the Republican and Democratic Parties, and reward loyalty to those parties:

  • No access to critical party primaries
  • Harder ballot access requirements
  • More restrictive campaign finance rules
  • No access to debates

The list does not end there

There is a reason Bernie Sanders ran for president as a Democrat, even though he long served in office as an independent, and Donald Trump ran as a Republican, even though Trump wasn’t always a Republican and at one point was a member of the Reform Party.

There is a reason third party representation in state legislatures is marginal, and non-existent in the Halls of Congress. And, why it is nigh impossible for a third option to emerge in presidential elections:

The rules have been rigged for decades to condition voters to think they only have two options in elections, and that there are only two ways of looking at things. Voting outside the two party apparatus is an exercise in futility.

The US electoral process is not only incredibly hyper-polarized but it is a system that largely requires voters and candidates to go to the two major parties, rather than forcing the parties to come to and compete for voters and be the big tent they have both claimed to be. 

Jolly, for instance, said he was often asked why he didn’t join the Democratic Party after he dropped his GOP affiliation. It is that two-party mindset that if someone is not going to be a Republican then they should be a Democrat, and vice versa.

“Some issues I probably am progressive, some I am moderate, but if I were to join the Democratic Party then I have to park all of my conservative convictions. What about my truly responsible less taxes conservative convictions?”

“I am not allowed to have that in the Democratic Party, because their tent might be big but it is not too wide.” 

Voters and candidates are put in an unfavorable position: Stick with a major party or don’t participate. Yet, dissatisfaction with both parties continues to grow. 

Not only do most Americans surveyed think a third party is needed, but even more understand that elected public officials today put their own interests and the interests of their party ahead of the interests of voters.

Further, Gallup also found for the first time in its history a record 50% of Americans self-identify as independent of the two major parties, a percentage that had hovered around 40% over the last few years. 

Voters want more than two options. There are more than enough data points to prove as much. They understand two-party politics isn’t serving their interests. So, What will it take for more parties and candidates outside the two-party apparatus to breakthrough?

How Do We Make Third Parties Viable in the US?

It is important to note that there isn’t a shortage of third parties in the US. Many third parties are region-specific and there are only a few that have an organized national committee -- most notably are the Libertarian and Green Parties.

Voters will generally recognize the Libertarian and Green Parties as they obtain broader ballot access in federal elections, especially the presidential election. Yet, they are scorned by the major parties and the media as “spoilers” rather than viable competitors.

The most successful third party active right now in terms of getting candidates elected to at least a state legislative level is the Vermont Progressive Party, which has 9 members in the Vermont Legislature.

However, other minor parties include:

  • Serve America Movement
  • Alliance Party
  • Common Sense Party
  • Constitution Party
  • Reform Party
  • Working Families Party
  • American Independent Party
  • Peace and Freedom Party
  • American Solidarity Party
  • Unity Party
  • Legal Marijuana Now Party
  • Socialist Party USA
  • Women’s Equality Party
  • Labor Party
  • United States Pirate Party
  • Justice Party

And so many more. Again, many parties are region or state-specific. The list of third parties in the US includes progressive, conservative, moderate, and independent parties in various states, and support for third parties ranges from state-to-state -- but largely it remains marginal.

Each of these parties face tremendous hurdles just to be recognized as an official party, much less get a candidate on the ballot. There is also a media bias in favor of the two parties that often keeps minor party candidates out of the conversation, even at the local level.

There is a reason we call it a two-party duopoly.

“The major parties have put all of these hurdles in place -- ballot access laws, party registration laws, they’ve made it as hard as possible for new parties to emerge because the one shared interest that the major parties have is in protecting their duopoly,” said jolly.

He said this is why his organization works closely with electoral reform organizations and why it is such an important movement in bringing competition and accountability into the political process.

It is not only on the subjects of ballot access and party registration laws. SAM also supports leveling the playing field for both voters and candidates with nonpartisan primaries (top 4 or top 5), along with ranked choice voting. 

“If you consider California where they have a top-two primary system regardless of party, it is easier to see an independent candidate emerge in that environment if you have the right one,” said Jolly. 

He used California State Assembly Member Chad Mayes as an example. Mayes resigned from the Republican Party in 2019 after serving as Assembly Republican Leader, and filed to run for re-election in 2020 as an independent. 

According to Mayes, if California didn’t have a nonpartisan primary system, he would have ended up in a general election against a Republican and a Democrat, and as a result would likely have not been re-elected. However, under a nonpartisan system, he was able to build a coalition of Republicans, Democrats, and independents to not only make it to the general election, but win re-election.

“That is a perfect example of where a state that has adopted electoral reform makes the path for an independent candidate or third party much more viable,” he added.

As mentioned already, SAM supports the expansive efforts of nonpartisan primary reform in the form of a top-four primary, like what passed in Alaska in 2020, or a top-five primary, like what is being proposed by the Institute for Political Innovation in Wisconsin and as a remedy elsewhere to America’s competition crisis. Both also include ranked choice voting in the process.

SAM also works with other organizations and seeks candidates who support: 

  • Appropriate term limits for legislative offices;
  • Lowering the barrier for independent and third party candidates to get on the ballot; 
  • Ending partisan gerrymandering; 
  • Ending “sore loser” laws that prevent primary candidates from running as independent or third; party candidates in the general election; 
  • Enacting automatic voter registration; 
  • Ending “dark money” in politics; 
  • Ending campaign finance loopholes explicitly designed to give major party candidates an advantage; and 
  • Making election law enforcement agencies, like the FEC, nonpartisan instead of bipartisan.

“A world in which we have achieved electoral reform makes new political parties and independent politics much more viable,” Jolly said.

These types of reform are not going to be achieved broadly overnight, which is why Jolly said SAM and other third parties need to keep targeting high-profile races in order to build momentum for a new party movement.

“We need to continue to push high-profile candidates or involve ourselves with high-profile races,” he said. “But we also need the moment to meet us halfway. 

He used the contrast of Ross Perot and Howard Schultz as an example. In 1992, he said, the moment met Ross Perot halfway, and up until the summer of that presidential election cycle, Ross Perot was ahead of Bush and Clinton. He said then independents believed they could see an independent candidate emerge.

In 2020, he added, the moment didn’t meet Schultz halfway. Jolly said it wasn’t even close. 

“As we work on electoral reform, as we work on the block and tackling and basic of party building and organizing independent political organizations and new parties, we also have to be recruiting and running candidates that will run as an independent or affiliated with a party like SAM, so unaffiliated voters can see and believe independent politics can be viable on the ballot.”

Do Third Parties Have The Same Substance Problem as the Major Parties?

David Jolly commented that the problem many third parties face isn’t just procedural. Systemic barriers make it difficult to achieve and maintain ballot access, but he says many third parties also face a substance problem.

Put simply, he says, third parties up to this point in modern US history have replicated one of the major failure points of the two parties -- namely, they have prioritized “finding a dot on the left-right spectrum.”

“The Libertarians have found their spot on the spectrum. The Green have found their part of the spectrum. Some of the new regional parties that say they are going to be a moderate party -- it’s all about picking a spot on the spectrum, and then expecting all the voters to come there, and if the voters aren’t there then you aren’t welcome.”

There are conservative parties. There are progressive parties. There are libertarian parties. There are socialist parties. From the name, these parties raise a clear barrier to entry for voters who are seeking a political home outside the major parties.

This is not to say these organizations do not have appeal among some voters who want to affiliate with a group that shares their specific ideological perspectives. These organizations certainly have every right to exist and to compete in the marketplace of ideas. 

However, by setting such strict ideological standards, the parties are also not building themselves up for broader success or appeal among an electorate that is generally dissatisfied with party- and ideologically-driven politics.

The parties still expect voters to come to them, not the other way around.

Jolly says his organization operates differently from the typical party, and has turned the notion of what US voters have come to expect from a political party on its head.

“What if we don’t try to affiliate people around shared ideology, but instead do it around shared values?” He said in our interview. 

“Of a government that solves problems? Of candidates that commit to transparency and accountability? Around democracy protections and electoral reform -- a values driven platform?”

Jolly added that if voters and candidates can commit to an approach of shared values, then it doesn’t matter where they fall on the ideological spectrum because their priority will be to work together to solve problems.

“One of the greatest blessings we have in this country, in the view of our Founders that formed this nation under very basic principles of liberty -- one of the greatest blessings we have is the right to our own personal ideological convictions. Let’s celebrate that. Let’s create a party that celebrates the diversity of ideology, and build it around a platform of shared values and shared principles.”

He explained that SAM understands that the politics and ideology of regions across the country are different. Thus, their expectation for their candidates is that they reflect the politics and ideology of the communities in which they are running.

Essentially, SAM sends out questionnaires to potential candidates and asks them if they are willing to commit to working across the aisle and with independents, if they are committed to pro-voter and pro-democracy reform, and if they are committed to transparency in their public life.

This is the foundation from which SAM can identify candidates whose highest priority is serving their community and problem solving. It is an approach that is extremely unique among political parties in the US, major or minor.

The SAM model, though, appears to be catching on. Other parties have emerged, like the Common Sense Party in California, that have similarly adopted a mission focused on mutual values rather than strict adherence to an ideology.

This may indeed be what the broader electorate is looking for in an alternative to the two major parties. The parties have already shown them what partisan and ideologically-driven politics reap. Americans broadly want politicians to work across the aisle and prioritize problem solving. So, is it possible the new party movement will be carried forward by organizations that share these values?

Politics may vary from region-to-region, but many voters understand that despite their ideological leanings, they have more in common than meets the eye -- primarily core values on which nearly everyone can agree.

And, when voters are offered a comprehensive perspective on issues, they often find common ground. When offered substance, voters are able to work together, and it starts with a point of mutual agreement.

This mutual agreement could be anything. It could be that nearly everyone agrees people have a right to clean air and water. It could be that nearly everyone agrees that elections should be fair and open. It could be that nearly everyone agrees people should have a protected right to privacy.

Once a value has been identified, it is important to listen to the array of views that exist on the subject, and from there a ladder can be built that reaches to a long-term solution that may not give everyone 100% of what they want, but will benefit voters at-large.

It is important to re-emphasize that voters are increasingly rejecting party labels altogether, because they largely do not want to be confined to a strict ideological box. Perhaps the future of the new party movement is not confining people into boxes at all.   

What if the third option Americans desire most is one that will flip the script on the political system entirely?

What is this story missing? Let us know. >>What is this story missing? Let us know. >>

About the Author

Shawn Griffiths

Shawn is an election reform expert and National Editor of IVN.us. He studied history and philosophy at the University of North Texas. He joined the IVN team in 2012.

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